I have really been struggling with food and cooking lately. It’s not that I don’t love food (because boy do I love food!) but I just can’t seem to get the energy or inspiration to cook. Maybe it’s the heat. Or maybe I’m just bored with the same five things I’ve been making forever. But I’m hungry. And I’m not sure exactly what I’m hungry for. Connection? Community? Comfort? Curiosity? I need inspiration but I just find it difficult to sit down and read a cookbook. I need stories. So here goes my quest for food inspiration through memoirs.
Kwame Alexander has written “Why Fathers Cry at Night” as an atypical memoir which includes poems, essays, lists, wishes, good memories, bad memories, stories, letters, jazz music suggestions, and family recipes that remind him of the people in his life. He confesses at the opening, “These are just snapshots of a man learning to love.” He talks about connection through food, “From the second we’re born, the experience with food is connected to being held, the warmth of our mother’s skin, her soothing voice… Later, as adults, the ritual of breaking bread around a table is how we share the things that matter most with the people who matter most to us.” Kwame is providing a full immersion experience. I think I’m ready.
In “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America,” Mayukh Sen honors seven extraordinary women, all immigrants, who have introduced Americans to so many foods from around the world. These women have all but been erased from our historical consciousness and Sen is prepared to correct that in a collection of essays that show these women’s journeys as chefs alongside their experiences as immigrants in the United States and how each fought against biased views of their home countries’ cuisines. Sen’s volume has chapters on Chao Yang Buwei, Elena Zeleyeta, Madeleine Kamman, Marcella Hazan, Julie Sahni, Najmieh Batmanglij and Norma Shirley, with an “interlude” on Julia Child. And, while I’m excited to read this one and think I will find inspiration, there are no actual recipes here.
In “I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef,” Vishwesh Bhatt pairs stories, beautiful photos and recipes to show the evolution of Southern cooking, particularly the fusion of American Southern food with traditional Indian food. Bhatt has been the executive chef at the restaurant “Snackbar” in Oxford, Mississippi since 2009, earned Best Chef: South (2019 James Beard Awards) and was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Farmers, Artisans, and Chefs in 2022. I’m from the South too… well, Texas anyway, and according to my family heritage summer means okra, tomatoes, zucchini, corn and peas while winter brings sweet potatoes and greens like mustards, collards, kale and spinach. This book, much more a traditional cookbook with memoir bits before each recipe, has the potential to both bring me back to my roots and expand and explore some new flavor combinations.
In 1975, Tung Nguyen came to America to escape the communist takeover in Vietnam. As a pregnant refugee, she ended up in Miami where she met Kathy Manning, an American grad student who opened her doors to 11 immigrants. The two women became close and ended up opening a Vietnamese restaurant called Hy Vong, which means “Hope” in Vietnamese. Now the two, along with Tung’s daughter, have written a book, “Mango and Peppercorns,” that tells their stories. The narrative switches between their perspectives and each chapter ends in a recipe or two that go along with what was written about in that chapter. Along with the beauty in food writing, this book also reflects on the relationship between mother and child, influenced by two vast cultures, and how the passage of time can eventually bring understanding.
In “Plenty: A Memoir of Food and Family,” Hannah Howard wanted to highlight the women she has met through her career — chefs, cooking teachers, restaurant/café owners, cheese makers, food purveyors, and buyers to push back against the highly male-dominated food industry. She writes about her travels to France, Spain, Oslo and Vermont, to name a few, and life back in her hometown of Brooklyn. She also shares her own struggles in the business. And, in case you might find these topics triggering, she also discusses what it’s like to be a woman in the food industry who has struggled with an eating disorder, and spends a significant amount of the book addressing the fertility challenges she and her husband faced.
Stanley Tucci is not just a pretty face. He is also a food obsessive who has written a couple of cookbooks and has now written a memoir, “Taste: My Life Through Food.” This is an exploration of Tucci’s journey through childhood, family, work and travels and it’s filled with family, pasta, eating, drinking and a peek behind the scenes of movie-making (mostly food-related). He loves good food, particularly Italian food, since his grandparents on both sides hail from the Calabria region of Italy. He shares childhood stories of his large Italian family — gardens and gift exchange battles and homemade sauce and wine making — as well as his learning that he had oral cancer, which caused a loss of taste for a while. Thankfully he is now cancer-free and still sharing wonderful recipes.
You can find more wonderful food memoirs on this list. And now, Bon Appétit!